One of the coolest experiences you will find in the off season is a visit to a black bear den — but you won’t be doing it on your own. The Pennsylvania Game Commission provides several opportunities for the outdoor press and the public to accompany them on a tagging operation. Since these activities can only accommodate a limited number of people, the events are not well-advertised (for the good of the bears and the wardens), but be aware that such opportunities exist. If your state has a bear-management program (and most do), contact them and ask whether you can accompany a warden in a non-intrusive way. Here’s a photo gallery of a recent Pennsylvania bear den visit.
First, a very brave warden must crawl into the den and administer a tranquilizer to the mother bear. As you can see, this is an all-in proposition.
A biologist estimates the weight of the bear and then a measured dose of tranquilizer is administered.
Next, the sow is carefully removed from the den, placed on a carpet so she can be more easily moved, her eyes blindfolded to protect her eyes from bright light, and an ear tag attached if she doesn’t already have one. Instruments are used to determine the health of the bear, including its temperature.
The weight of the bear is compared to previous measurements and to the mass of other bears. Pennsylvania sows are among the nation’s best moms, raising litters of 2–5 cubs.
Each cub is weighed as well and then the fun begins as person after person gets a few moments to hold a cub. The little creatures are very huggable, yet can scratch with claws that are already hard. Apparently, human scent left on the cubs has no effect on the mother.
Finally, the cubs are returned to the den and the sow gets a carpet ride back into her abode, where she will awake and groggily wonder how her brood got matching ear tags. By tagging bears, officials can document how far bears travel, their survival rate, and their health; this allows them to make informed decisions about future bear management.